Community in Grip of a Kind of Road Rage
BEAUMONT, Tex., July 14 - It is merely a
four-mile stretch of asphalt on this East Texas city's outskirts, dotted with
some ranch-style houses, a few decaying trailer homes and a shuttered gun
shop, in the distance the rice fields that brought a small group of Japanese
settlers here a century ago.
But the name of the country lane, Jap Road, has
long angered many Japanese-Americans. Equally outraged are numerous people
who live on Jap Road,
which has 100 or so residences; they view criticism of their address as
meddling in their affairs.
"I hear 'Jap' cars and 'Jap' bikes all
the time," Buddy Derouen, 69, a retired
petrochemical worker who lives on the road, in the community of Fannett, said
in a recent letter published in The Beaumont Enterprise. "Why not Jap Road?"
The competing positions are set to clash in a
meeting on Monday at the Jefferson County Courthouse. Leading the county
commissioners' agenda is a discussion of whether they should change the name.
Advancing the issue this far has been a
victory of sorts for Sandra Nakata Tanamachi, whose
family settled in Beaumont after immigrating from Japan in the early 1900's. Before
moving away to Lake Jackson, south of Houston, Ms. Tanamachi, an elementary-school teacher, lobbied more
than a decade ago to have the road's name changed. She was unsuccessful.
Last December, however, she allied herself
with Thomas Kuwahara, a helicopter pilot from Lafayette, La., who was
stunned to come across the road a few years ago while driving to San Antonio to visit a
relative. They filed a complaint with two federal agencies - the Department
of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development -
trying to keep Jefferson
County from getting
federal money unless the road's name was changed.
"We Japanese are often ignored, but
we're still individuals with feelings," Ms. Tanamachi
said in an interview, speaking with a thick Texas twang. "I felt I could not
stand in front of my students and talk about values like dignity and respect
and not fight this thing."
Scott Newar, the
lawyer representing Ms. Tanamachi and Mr. Kuwahara, said HUD had told them that it did not directly
finance any housing programs in the county, a circumstance effectively
limiting its actions. The Department of Transportation has asked Texas state
authorities to examine the complaint, Mr. Newar
Civil rights organizations, meanwhile,
including the Japanese American Citizens League, the League of United Latin
American Citizens and the Anti-Defamation League, have voiced support for
changing the name.
Considerable outside involvement has come in
recent weeks from the Japanese American Veterans Association. Drawing
attention to the sacrifices its members made in World War II, the group will
be using the meeting in Beaumont to discuss the role of the 442nd Regimental
Combat Team, a segregated Japanese-American unit whose exploits included
rescuing soldiers of the Texas 36th Division, national guardsmen who were
trapped by German forces in the mountains of eastern France in 1944.
"Jap Road should not be a part of the
United States landscape,'' said Kelly Kuwayama, 86,
a member of the 442nd who said he planned to travel from Washington to
Beaumont to speak at the meeting. "And Texas
is certainly part of the United
States, or at least it was the last time I
The thought of outsiders' descending on Beaumont makes many
here bristle. More than 100 residents of Jap Road and supporters of their effort
to maintain its name gathered at an open-air bar on Wednesday evening to
drink beer, eat barbecue and ponder how to thwart their opponents.
"We're not here to bash the
Japanese," Wayne Wright, a retired petrochemical worker who is
spearheading a movement to preserve the name, said in an interview before the
meeting. "How can I be considered a bigot and a racist when I got a
Puerto Rican son-in-law?"
Mr. Wright's wife, Polly, said she believed
the name was originally intended to honor the memory of Yasuo
Mayumi, a Japanese farmer who, according to local lore, settled in the area
in 1905 before returning to Japan
in the 1920's.